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'We were expendable'

Photo of Herbert Reed

In January 2003 Herbert Reed learnt he was being activated to go to Iraq. Reed, a member of the 442nd Military Police, an Army National Guard unit comprising cops and prison officers from in and around New York, remembers training for it and the reluctance to go of those that were called up. Then, in April, it was time to board the plane.

Looking back, Reed is adamant that ‘at no time during that training did they tell us anything about depleted uranium, or what to do if we should come into contact with the stuff, or any special clothing or special procedures – nothing!

‘I got hurt early in the tour. My left side just became paralyzed. They say it might have been from moving heavy equipment and riding around in the humvees which weren’t armoured. As protection we had to put sandbags at the bottom of the vehicle, so your knees would be around your neck. As you rode around you’d hit the top of the vehicle and you’d be thrown from one side to another.

‘In July 2003 I was med-evacuated to Germany and then back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. It wasn’t until I’d been there a couple of months that I realized that something was seriously wrong.’ During his time there Reed kept bumping into other members from his unit who were also sick. Eventually there were eight of them at Walter Reed.

‘I had constant bloody diarrhoea, blood in the urine. We had these rashes that would pop out on our bodies – red blotches that would turn brown. We were constantly out of breath. I just assumed that it was from my short stay in Iraq and that my body would readjust and I’d be all right. I mean the temperature in Iraq would get up to 125 degrees (52˚C) and there was no shade.

Jeroen Oerlemans / PANOS

‘It was later that I found out that the abandoned railroad repair yard in Al-Samawah we were housed in had been bombed out in the early 1990s and in 2003. The Dutch marines who moved in to relieve us did a survey of the area – the air, the water, the soil. They found it to be contaminated. And we said, “What?” And they said, “Yes, this area is contaminated with DU – it’s radioactive. You guys shouldn’t be in there.” They moved out into the desert and set up a compound for themselves.’

At this stage Reed and others from his unit at Walter Reed asked to be tested for DU. ‘They said that there was no test for depleted uranium and that we had nothing to worry about, just leave it alone. Well, just walking up four or five steps on a flight of stairs and you used to be totally out of breath. My buddy Gerard Matthew, who was in transportation, responsible for picking up exploded armour parts and vehicles – his face would blow up like a blowfish for no apparent reason. He’d just puff up. Then it would go back down again. And this would keep recurring. There was no explanation why I had this nerve damage on my left side. We didn’t believe the military.’

They decided to call the _New York Daily News_, which paid for sophisticated urine tests (mass spectrometer analysis) in Germany. Four months later all eight men got their reports back saying that they were contaminated with DU. When confronted with this result, the very same experts who’d said there was no test for DU exposure decided to test Reed and the others themselves. Reed believes this latter test was done using an ‘inferior method that wasn’t able to pick up the minute particles that were in our system. You would actually have to have DU shrapnel embedded in your body in order for their method to pick it up.’ The test came up negative.

‘We felt we had been wronged by the military. We had given them our years of service faithfully and here they were lying to us. So we sought an attorney.’

When the federal judge made his decision to allow them to pursue their case against the Government and the military it was only on grounds of medical malpractice. A previous ruling of over 30 years ago bars soldiers from suing the Government for deception. Since then the men have come across a military video prepared in the late 1990s which outlines protection procedures when handling DU. Herbert Reed considers this ‘concrete proof that they know that DU was a problem in Iraq and never told us anything about it or how to protect ourselves’.

Prescription medicine

While Reed awaits the progress of the lawsuit, it’s now four years since he went from being someone in top physical condition to someone who is classed as disabled.

‘I’m on 40 mg of methadone every six hours, 45 mg of morphine every eight hours, 4 mg of Tizanidine every four hours – and those are just the pain medications. And because I’m on such a high dose of methadone and morphine that it causes erectile dysfunction, they’ve now got me on Viagra. It also causes constipation constantly so I have to take a laxative every two or three days. It’s just one thing after another. My joints ache, my left side is still numb, my left leg and hand are numb and tingle. I’ve been diagnosed with nerve damage, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep apnea where I have to wear a respirator mask at night to help me breathe because the stuff did something to my lungs. I’m just in constant pain. I still have the blood in my urine and in my stool.

‘I also had a tumour around my thyroid when I was at Walter Reed which I complained about repeatedly. And they said, “One thing at a time. We’ll get to it.” Well, you know the whole time I spent at Walter Reed they never got to it. It wasn’t until 2005 that I finally got a Veterans Association (VA) doctor to look at it and actually touch it. And he said, “Oh yeah, you have a problem.” They took some x-rays and MRIs and told me that it had to come out. So they took it out, they sent it to Washington, and two years later I still haven’t got the biopsy on it yet.’

‘We felt we had been wronged by the military. We had given them our years of service faithfully and here they were lying to us’

Reed finds the secrecy around his medical treatment infuriating. He feels the military is ‘just stepping away’ from veterans as they did when Agent Orange became a scandal after the Vietnam War. ‘They have the facts on DU, they’ve done the research, they know the stuff is harmful. It’s all about money – it’s not money that’s coming into their pockets but money leaving their pockets that disturbs them.

‘I don’t think I have the time to wait around for the Government to come clean and say, “Yeah, you know that DU stuff we were using, it is harmful, it does cause cancer.” And this is why I speak out – not just for myself and my buddies and not because of the lawsuit, but because it’s the right thing to do. This is something that is affecting not only me but everybody that comes into contact with this stuff. You can’t get rid of it. It’ll hang around for 4.5 billion years.

‘We’ve done nothing to clean up this stuff in Iraq. And young children are playing in the bombed-out areas. That’s like putting your child in a nuclear reactor and expecting them to live.

‘They die a horrible death – just like some of our soldiers. There was a soldier that I talk about when I speak for these various groups – his name was Dustin Brim. Dustin was 22 years old, from California, in perfect health – surfer, weightlifter, runner – and after only being in Iraq six months, he developed three different types of cancers.

Violation of protocol

‘Because they were so short in the numbers of soldiers to fight this war and because they went in there haphazardly, when a soldier got sick they ignored it. I saw soldiers that were over there in baseball sneakers and not boots. It wasn’t until Dustin Brim passed out that they took him to a medic. He was a wheel mechanic who worked under vehicles that travelled in these contaminated areas and because he didn’t have any protective breathing apparatus or clothing he breathed this stuff in. He got more than the average person and he ended up in Walter Reed where he died of multiple types of cancer. All because our Government didn’t give us protective equipment that we were supposed to be issued with. This is in army regulations – they violated their own protocol when they knew that we were going to be exposed to this stuff. We were just expendable.

US states with DU testing laws

‘The military has a map from the first Gulf War of all the areas that were contaminated. It wasn’t until one of the guys who was in my unit – Raymond Ramos – went before a Senate Congressional hearing that these doctors from Walter Reed were forced to tell the truth. And they said on tape that the area we were living in, in Al-Samawah, was contaminated with DU. From the time we were in Walter Reed until the time we got this Senate hearing there wasn’t enough time for them to send a team to Al-Samawah. They had this information already. Because they were forced before Congress to tell the truth and raise their hand, the head doctor, Michael Kilpatrick, finally came forward and said it was contaminated. But all along in his office when we talked to him: “No, it’s all in your head.” They told us that DU was so safe that you could sprinkle it on your cereal and eat it. It’s just mind-boggling.

‘I’m classified as totally disabled and unable to work. I’m not getting any retirement from the military but the VA has given me a stipend. The military said that I didn’t finish my 20 years – I had 19 years 9 months and 20 days when I got hurt and they didn’t wait around to give me the extra 30 days so I could retire. So I don’t get anything from the military – I’m still fighting for that. Of course, they’re going to fight me because I’m fighting them for medical coverage.’

Herbert Reed now campaigns for a ban on DU weapons. He has also been active in a push to get legislation passed in various states for soldiers returning from Iraq to be tested for DU. But it remains an uphill struggle: ‘Some of the states that have enacted the law to have the veterans tested haven’t appropriated any money to have this done. So all they have is a bill but no money to actually do the job.’

*Herbert Reed* spoke to *Dinyar Godrej*.

New Internationalist issue 406 magazine cover This article is from the November 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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